The Routledge Companion to Gothic

Catherine Spooner and Emma McEvoy (eds.),
The Routledge Companion to Gothic.
London; New York: Routledge, 2007.
ISBN: 978 0 415 39843 5
$US30.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Routledge)

Showing no signs of releasing its grasp on the popular or critical imagination, the Gothic has confirmed its longevity with a spate of academic titles over the past few years. Paul Hodkinson’s Goth: Identity, Style and Subculture (Berg, 2002), Gavin Baddley’s Goth Chic: A Connoisseur’s Guide to Dark Culture (Plexus, 2002) Catherine Spooner’s Fashioning Gothic Bodies (Manchester UP, 2004) and the collection Goth: Undead Subcultures (Duke University Press, 2007) demonstrate not just the viability of the Gothic as a fiscal commodity, but the persistence of the concept as a whole outside its traditional realm of Literary Studies. Like so much of its famed iconography, the very notion of the Gothic simply refuses to die.

Dauntingly, the opening lines of Catherine Spooner and Emma McEvoy’s introduction to the latest Routledge offering on the subject suggests that what will follow will be little more than a pedestrian stroll through well-trod terrain:

What is Gothic? There is no single, straightforward answer to this question (p. 1).
But perhaps this ‘been there, done that’ introduction is only appropriate for a term so haunted by retrospect. It seems fitting that a book about the Gothic should contain precisely this aura of nostalgic familiarity, permeated by what Leslie Fiedler once eloquently identified within the Gothic as a sense of “the pastness of the past” (p. 136).

It is this “sense of something lapsed or outlived or irremediably changed” (Fiedler, p. 136) that captures not just the subject matter of this book, but many of the approaches contained therein. Like the Gothic itself, Gothic Studies is a wide and varied field that finds its strengths and its most captivating, potent critical investigations within the darkest recesses of memory. The Routledge Companion to Gothic is simultaneously (and appropriately) therefore both familiar and strange, and it is the tension between these two categories that spawns some of the more insightful treatments of the subject to date.

Divided into four distinct sections, the first three quarters of the book offer the most solid evidence for the collection’s merit and, on quantative bang-for-buck analysis alone, places the collection firmly in the ‘must have’ domain. ‘Gothic Traditions’ provides a linear overview of the evolution of the concept, Robert Miles, Alexandra Warwick and the book’s editors effectively negotiating an era-by-era breakdown of the most notable manifestations. Densely historical, these chapters provide a broad survey of their respective areas of specialisation. Despite the scope, the opening section in many senses is the heaviest going of the whole book due to the sheer detail provided but, as in the case of Warwick’s chapter on ‘Victorian Gothic’ in particular, effort is rewarded with the resultant clarity of what is an undeniably complex subject to explain in less than ten pages.

The following section, ‘Gothic Locations’ offers a solid exploration of the field of the Gothic, in relation to postcolonial and Occidental cultures. Of note are analyses of national contexts that may have otherwise evaded the reader, such as Angela Wright’s exploration of ‘Scottish Gothic’ and Coral Ann Howells’ equally fascinating ‘Canadian Gothic’. Without any question, the strongest ideas within this section are those that explore the designation of what may in fact be a global language of Gothic, where myriad postcolonial cultures enter a dialogue of sorts with the histories outlined in the preceding section.

The ‘Gothic Concepts’ section is the most rigorous series of essays within the whole book. Key concepts such as the Uncanny, gender, childhood and the notion of haunting itself are broken down and explored to effectively expose the nuance so vital to Gothic. Kelly Hurley’s chapter, ‘Abject and Grotesque’ stands out as the strongest chapter in the entire book, her analysis of Bahktin and Kristeva’s work in relation to Gothic as insightful as it is succinct. Ellis Hanson’s chapter, ‘Queer Gothic’, is also worthy of comment for its sheer eloquence and ability to provide such a vivid panorama of the concept in such a short chapter.

Surprisingly, it is the section Spooner and McEvoy suggest is their most bold foray into Gothic Studies that feels the most token and, in terms of pure engagement from the reader’s perspective, the least interesting. The ‘Gothic Media’ section that “explores some of the ways in which Gothic is dispersed through contemporary non-literary media (one of the most neglected areas of Gothic scholarship)” (p. 2) belies the difficulties many scholars in the field clearly experience when trying to reconcile ‘the pastness of the past’ with the non-narrative technologies that define the present-day and the possibilities of the future. Perhaps it is the very ubiquity of the textual material in question – the horror film, comic books, television, industrial music, etc. – that renders the authoritative voices that have permeated the book thus far appear to weaken. Alternatively, it instead may be the vague self-congratulatory air that surrounds Spooner and McEvoy’s declaration that they are attending to such a ‘neglected field’ that ends such a powerful collection on such a slightly unsatisfying note. Aside from Kamilla Elliott’s excellent “Gothic – Film – Parody”, there are none of the standout moments that define the bulk of the book.

Regardless, that so many of the titles listed at the outset of this review are focusing upon contemporary non-narrative manifestations of the Gothic – such as Goth fashion and the broader subculture itself – suggests that this is an area that is just beginning to grab the attention of the academy at large. The birth of yet another dark child springing forth from the dank recesses of the past? Maybe. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas,
La Trobe University, Australia

Works Cited
Leslie Fiedler, ‘The Substitution of Terror for Love’, The Gothick Novel, Victor Sage (ed), London, Macmillan, 1990.

Created on: Thursday, 4 September 2008

About the Author

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

About the Author

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a PhD student in the Cinema Studies department at Latrobe University. She is a regular contributor to a variety of publications, and teaches Cinema Studies at Latrobe and Swinburne University. More information can be found all posts by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas →